Toxic waste. You know it is bad. Must be controlled. But think about this for a second: factories are not built to make waste. Factories make products. Most of the chemicals which go into a factory come out in the products you buy. Furthermore, the product you buy is often a short detour on the path to becoming waste. Did you ever think: who is making certain that the chemicals in the products I buy are safe? Or at least...are made using the least harmful chemicals available to make a product for which the social benefits outweigh the environmental and health risks? This post may not be the most glamorous or interesting on TreeHugger this month. But if you care about these questions, you should read on. Because the most ambitious law ever to address the question of chemicals in modern life is about to hit the books in Europe. Inquiring minds want to know.Yes, there are laws. Japan was the leader, adopting their Chemical Substances Control Law (CSCL) in 1974, largely in reaction to mercury building up in their island environment. USA followed shortly with TSCA (Toxic Substances Control Act) and Europe with their inventories of existing and new chemicals (EINECS/ELINCS). Recently, under UN tutelage, fast growing economies like China and Korea have adopted similar measures. But are these laws working as intended? Not according to leaders in the EU.
On 18 December 2006, the EU Council approved the most ambitious regulation of chemicals yet conceived, the REACH law, for Registration, Evaluation and Authorization of Chemicals. REACH is a response to the observation that we live in a chemical soup. Over 100,000 chemicals are currently commercially available and over 30,000 chemicals circulate widely in the products of modern life. The chemical laws currently in force started from the assumption that the chemicals which have been sold for many years are probably safe enough, since there has not yet been any significant problems identified with their use. To a great extent this is a good assumption. However, there is no systematic way to ensure the assumption is valid, and there is continuously more evidence that we do not know enough to make the correct decisions. Decisions such as which of the chemicals found in human blood or breastmilk could be harmful? Are frog mutations the results of natural environmental factors or due to build up of chemicals? How is growing use of hormone-mimicking chemicals affecting the delicate balance of nature?
So just how comprehensive is REACH? How will it change things? Will it drive industry away from Europe and into countries with little or no environmental control? Or will it set a new standard, forcing green chemistry into the boardrooms and strategic planning committees of companies around the world?
The European viewpoint identifies the change of responsibility from the State to the Industry as one of the key provisions of REACH. In the EU, the government used to be responsible to tell industry which chemicals should be tested more and to decide if they are safe for use. Under REACH, the industry has a duty to know their chemicals are safe. You may be thinking: but the duty has always been on industry in the USA (with the EPA autorized to force the issue a bit by certain mechanisms such as significant new use rules.) How is REACH different?
REACH has a twist: each supplier is required to know how the users are using their chemicals. And to determine specifically, according to defined methods, if the intended uses are safe. And REACH will require every single supplier to register their chemicals and intended uses over an eleven year period, giving the new European Chemicals Agency an opportunity to check up on how well industry is meeting its obligation (one aspect of the so-called evaluation). This will apply equally to suppliers anywhere in the world--if they want to sell their chemicals to Europe, or if their customers sell products to Europe from which the release of the chemicals may occur.
Authorization provides a mechanism to assess and decide whether the social benefits of a risky chemical (for which no substitute is yet available) should justify continued use. Perhaps a chemical which may cause cancer or hormonal disruptions should be banned from use in kitchen products but allowed for manufacturing of medical devices which can save lives.
This may sound easy, and obvious, as a clear solution to a problem which concerns us all. But hidden in the simple process is significant complexity. For example: how does a supplier get a customer to tell him about his "intended uses" of the chemical if the use is considered a trade secret? How much is the efficiency of industry reduced by the pure volume of information which must be exchanged--up and down the supply chain as well as between industry and government? Will the complexity of getting a chemical registered freeze innovation by locking in the accepted chemicals already registered? Or will the pressure to plan for and find substitutes to existing harmful or potentially harmful substances spur a wave of research and development? Will industry leave Europe to avoid these burdensome requirements? Or will other countries implement similar laws to ensure that their industries stay competitive?
The REACH law was passed with 529 votes in favor offset by only 98 against and 24 abstentions and approved by the European Council on 18 December 2006. It will now become law effective 1 June 2007, after translation into all of the official languages of the EU is accomplished.